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Nutrition and recreation: Local fruit growers are key cog in agritourism

Area fruit growers acknowledge that they play a key role in the region’s agritourism industry.

“Fruit production in this part of the country is a treat. It’s a great recreational event. It’s a summertime treat. It gets people out,” said John Govin of Govin’s Farm in Menomonie.

Govin’s has more than five acres of strawberries and will enter its 18th year of welcoming the public to pick berries.

Fifty percent of the annual strawberry crop at Govin’s is pick your own. The remainder of the berries are sold at roadside stands or at the store at the farm, Govin said.

A cool and dry spring is delaying the strawberry crop this year.

“It will not be an early year. It will be late June before it starts,” Govin said.

“I’m sure we will be here berry picking after the Fourth of July.”

One week in May required Govin to do nightly irrigating to protect his strawberry crop against frost.

“We irrigated more that week than we did all of last summer,” he said.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the area’s strawberry patches and apple orchards will play even a more significant role for a recreational escape, Govin said.

“It’s one of the few things people are going to be able to do this year,” he said.

Representatives of three Eau Claire area apple orchards agree with Govin’s assessment.

“Really, our goal is to welcome people on an operating farm in a safe and secure way,” said Andy Ferguson, co-owner of Ferguson’s Orchards.

Tens of thousands of people visit Ferguson’s each fall for apple and pumpkin picking, a corn maze and other activities, he said.

“We are a very popular agritourism destination,” Ferguson said.

Six members of the Ferguson family run the orchard operations in Eau Claire and Galesville.

In 2015, the family bought the McIlhuquam Orchard in Chippewa Falls. That location is strictly for production with no retail store.

The Fergusons in 2018 purchased an orchard in Lake City, Minnesota, that at the time was Minnesota’s largest apple orchard.

Ferguson said his family’s orchards are the largest supplier of locally grown apples in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“If you buy locally grown apples in those states, odds are they came from our farms,” he said.

The Eau Claire, Galesville and Lake City orchards engage in agritourism, but the Eau Claire orchard draws the biggest crowds each fall, Ferguson said.

The orchards draw visitors from the end of August until the end of October or early November.

“We have that short window to make all of our money for the year,” he said.

Agritourism is the most rewarding part of owning apple orchards, Ferguson said.

“We love seeing families come out,” he said. “Everyone has fun at this type of place.”

Orchards also provide an opportunity to show people where some of their food comes from, he said.

Ferguson is optimistic for a successful fall season this year despite the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re very optimistic,” he said. “The definition of our place is wide open spaces.”

Ferguson said his family has always taken pride in providing a safe environment for visitors.

“What we’re going to do is double down on that,” he said. “We’ll hire some people whose only job will be to walk around and clean things.”

Laura Leffel and her husband have been operating Leffel Roots Apple Orchard in Eau Claire since 2015.

The Leffels’ 40-acre property includes nine acres of apples, 10 acres for a corn maze, and one acre each for pumpkins and sunflowers.

The orchard initially raised only Honeycrisp and Cortland apples but have started to expand to other varieties, Leffel said.

“We’ve been enjoying the challenge,” she said.

Half of the Leffels’ annual apple crop is sold at their wholesale location at the orchard. The other half, primarily Honeycrisp apples, is sold at Woodmans and Festival Foods stores.

Only 10% of the orchard was devoted to agritourism when the Leffels bought it. That has now expanded to about 50%, Leffel said.

“We beefed up our pick-your-own operation. We as farmers make more money when we sell it here,” she said. “I hope it encourages more people to go out and enjoy farms. We always want to encourage people to come out to the farms to see how their food is made. And it’s kind of fun to pick your own fruit.”

New this year at Leffel Roots Apple Orchard will be a full kitchen.

“We are open five days a week in the fall. And on the two days we are off we are making pies,” Leffel said.

“We make about 100 pies a week,” she said. “We get a lot of good compliments on the pies.”

Ronnie Knutson, who is also known as Ronnie Appleseed, operates the small AVEnue Orchard in Eau Claire.

Knutson has three acres of apples growing in Eau Claire and leases an additional three acres of orchards in Strum.

AVEnue Orchard sells about half of its crop at its orchard and at a few grocery stores in Eau Claire, Osseo and Augusta.

But its niche is farmers markets, Knutson said.

“Most of our apples are sold that way,” he said.

AVEnue Orchard sells its fruit at 10 farmers markets each week in Eau Claire, Altoona, Osseo, Menomonie, Elk Mound and Chetek.

“We also do jams and jellies, so we are at the markets year-round,” he said.

At the indoor farmers market in Menomonie, AVEnue Orchard sold its last apple from last year’s apple crop in mid February.

Because they are a small orchard, Knutson said he does not offer a corn maze or hayrides. They do have some animals on site that families can look at.

“We’re a lot more low key,” he said. “We just kind of pride ourselves on being a nice little location you can hang out at. If you show up, and there’s somebody here, we’re open.”

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Thousands apply early for $50 million in farm aid

Thousands of farmers sought aid in the first few days after the application period opened for the $50 million Wisconsin Farm Support Program.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, as of 7 a.m. on June 18, 6,554 Wisconsin farmers had applied for one-time direct payments of between $1,000 and $3,500.

Payments from the Wisconsin Farm Support Program are available for farmers who had a gross income between $35,000 and $5 million based on 2019 tax filings and will be made on a sliding scale based on gross income.

Gov. Tony Evers introduced the $50 million Wisconsin Farm Support Program in May. The funding is part of the money allocated to Wisconsin through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

“The goal is to fully exhaust that $50 million,” Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary-designee Randy Romanski said during a June 18 conference call with agricultural media. “The Department of Revenue will start getting checks out the door in mid-July, once they know how many applicants there are.”

The Wisconsin Department of Revenue’s online application system can be found at www.revenue.wi.gov. Those unable to apply online can call the Department of Revenue at 608-266-2772.

The application period ends June 29 at 11:59 p.m.

Evers in May also announced the $15-million Food Security Initiative to combat hunger in Wisconsin. The funding for that also came through the federal CARES Act.

Romanski said about $5 million of that would go to food banks to help them adapt how they operate as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The remaining $10 million will be used to try to connect Wisconsin food to the food insecure.

“We’re working to finalize the details of the program. This one we’re building from the ground up,” he said. “The good news is we’ve developed relationships with organizations across the state in advance.”

Romanski recommended checking www.datcp.wi.gov for information on getting involved with that program.

Federal programs

On June 17, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the USDA’s plan to extend the contracts of select vendors from the first round of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. The extension accounts for up to $1.16 billion of food of the remaining $1.8 billion from the $3 billion program and runs from July 1-Aug. 30.

The program’s initial $1.2 billion in purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products and meat products were to be packaged into family-sized boxes and transported to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other non-profits serving Americans in need through June 30.

Of the initial $1.2 billion allocated through the food box program, Wisconsin farmers saw only about $9 million come their way. The USDA plans to revisit some applicants from the first round that were not selected, and Romanski said he is optimistic Wisconsin farmers will benefit from the approximately $640 million left to be allocated from the program.

“Despite what we thought were strong applications and strong interest from Wisconsin entities, Wisconsin was not as included in the USDA program as we would have expected,” Romanski said. “We’ll continue to aggressively pursue answers on the details of that next round of applications, because we want to help build the case about Wisconsin organizations maximizing their opportunities for success this time around. I really think it’s important that Wisconsin producers have the opportunity to participate in that program in a larger capacity than they have thus far.”

The USDA announced that Wisconsin is ranked second in the country based on direct payments made to farmers as part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, with $218 million in payments made to farmers. Of that, Romanski said, dairy payments make up about 71% of the state’s total.

“There have been a lot of impacts due to COVID-19 to Wisconsin agriculture and Wisconsin farmers,” Romanski said. “There’s a lot of need out there.”

The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program is administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency. Applications will be accepted through Aug. 28. More information about that program can be found at www.farmers.gov/cfap.

USMCA to take effect

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade agreement goes into effect July 1, and Romanski said DATCP’s International Agribusiness Center officials have been working to keep trade relations for Wisconsin products alive despite challenges presented by COVID-19.

“Canada and Mexico are two of Wisconsin’s most valuable trading partners for agricultural exports,” he said. “When (USMCA) was originally forged, there was some great interest to see what could happen. Clearly COVID-19 has intervened, but the finalization of this agreement, it’s hoped, will set up some additional successes in exports to two of our major partners.”